After a five-hour flight from Toronto we landed on the single air strip in São Miguel, at 750sqkm the largest of the cluster of nine volcanic islands that make up the Azores, a bucolic archipelago in the middle of the Atlantic, between Europe and North America, first colonised by Portugal in the 15th century.
The last localized active eruption was about 500 years ago but most of these islands were formed some 40’000 years ago, long before any seafarers or tourists had to worry about what’s under foot. Hot bubbling springs and steam vents are active today in several places all over this island and the distinct crater walls, wooded and green today, are tame but spectacular evidence of former geophysical violence. The porous volcanic rock and rich black soil provide the island with building materials and vegetation and the regular rainfalls supply plenty of water and keep the island green year-round.
For hundreds of years, most of the people on São Miguel have subsisted on farming, fishing, dairy cattle, or, more recently, EU subsidies and tourists, who are sadly missing in this time of the pandemic. We’ve maybe met a handful of them in over a month, mostly from Europe.
Today the island has 140,000 inhabitants, about half of them living in Ponta Delgada, the main city. ‘Although the island has a mix of intimacy and claustrophobia that marks many small communities, the predictability of life here creates a sense of security that is reinforced by the vast Atlantic Ocean, which barricades Azoreans within a subtropical paradise.,’ said Matthew Brenmer in The Guardian. ‘The paradox of the Azores is that you are always wanting to leave when you’re here, and always wanting to return when you’re not,’ Tiago Melo Bento, a local film-maker said.
The first few days we walked all over the historic center of Ponta Delgada, along its artistically patterned black and white cobblestoned streets and narrow sidewalks, so narrow in fact that we pressed against the buildings, trying not to get hit while the cars sped by. The alleys are lined with shops of every kind, from name brands to souvenirs, men’s shops to haute-couture women’s attire. The generous designed harbour can accommodate two cruise ships which dock here regularly on their repositioning and Atlantic cruises and has been an age long stop over for sailboats from around the globe.
A cobbled boardwalk flanks Avenida do Mar and follows the rocky shore from the Fort past the harbour, the marina and the swimming place, which is used year-round by water enthusiasts all the way to São Roca. This was one of our regular walks and we never tired of the open Atlantic vista, often watching cargo ships make their way into the port. We even brazed the 18℃ cold water for a quick dip, just to say that we swam in the Atlantic in January. The waterfront is flanked by cafés and lorded over by a few multi storied hotels across the wide boulevard; one of them, the AZOR Hotel, features a casino and a roof-top sunset bar and lounge and an infinity pool. Just past the hotel sits the prison, recognizable by its watch towers and high, razor-wire topped walls.
We rented a small car for $ 15 p/day. Cheap because it’s off season. Small, because the ancient labyrinthian one-way alleys were built for horses and carts. The cars are parked with two wheels on the narrow sidewalks right next to the solid wall of houses, with doors inches from the traffic. We avoid driving into the old part of town when possible. In contrast, the highways and roads outside of the towns and the city criss-crossing the island are modern and well maintained, with traffic circles instead of lights. We had no trouble finding our way around, thanks to maps and the phone GPS tracker. It’s hard to get lost on an island that is 65km long and 15km wide.
Happy cows are grazing contentedly all over the rolling hills of this lush, green volcanic island in the middle of the Atlantic, between Newfoundland and Portugal. The cows are happy, we’re told, because they roam and graze all year round in the open, never crammed together into barns or feed lots, never short of fresh green grass thanks to the regular rain falls all year round. As we drive and discover São Miguel, the main island, we pass by the green rolling hills, reminiscent of Ireland, New Zealand and even Switzerland. The paddocks are bordered by volcanic rock walls, built over hundreds of years and dividing the land into a quilt of shades of greens.
These fat, happy Holsteins translate into dairy and meat – milk, cheese and beef. On a typical Azorean restaurant menu one can find liver, blood pudding, tongue and several cuts of meat and large cheese platters for appetizers. For those adhering to a vegetarian or a daring vegan diet, the Portuguese – and indeed Azorean diet – can be a challenge. There is also a large seafood component in the local diet, derived from centuries of fishing. Anything from octopus to limpets (aquatic snails and a local delicatessen that tasted more like chunks of garden hose to me) squid to swordfish, mussels to shrimp and cod and lobster is on the menu at most seaside restaurants. The most popular specialty is Bacalhau, dry salted cod fish that is softened up in fresh water for two or three days. One restaurant served this white fish on a bed of stuffing and vegetables in a half cylindrical roof tile. The portions were for hearty appetites. It took us a while to figure out that in most places one entrée is plenty for two people to share. Some restaurants offer an extra dinner plate for a surcharge, catering to the meagre appetites of tourists. When one of us ordered the tofu and vegetable bowl and asked the waiter if it was any good, he shook his head and said solemnly: ‘I wouldn’t eat it, not my way.’
At one such seaside restaurant on the north coast, in the centre of the island across the isthmus and only 12km from Ponta Delgada, we sat beside a large table of seven boisterous men piling into a vast array of cheese and seafood platters, followed by mountains of meat with nary a vegetable in sight, swilled down with copious amounts of red wine and followed by creamy desserts, espressos and sugary liquors. All of these men were in their senior years, stout, heavy set, with thick necks and I bet, not a vegetarian among them. The amount of food they devoured was astounding and almost intimidating. They left, clasping each other’s hands and shouting their good cheer at each other and then each of them got into their own car and drove off. Not sure what the occasion was all about but they seemed like men of some importance, maybe even family or just the local crime bosses having lunch.
Next to this restaurant in Rabo de Peixes sits an old, walled in cemetery on prime real estate right next to the rough surf of the north Atlantic. We took a curious stroll amongst the many tombs and mausoleums which are like stone garden houses with glassed aluminium doors that let us look in at the stacked coffins draped with doilies and fake flowers. A final resting place not unlike an eternity hotel. A curiously morbid sight I thought and not my thing. Several of the interred were young and ended up in here after half a metric tonne of pure cocaine washed up on these shores in 2001. The effects of this thrilling and tragic event, that changed the lives of these fisherfolk for the worse, are still talked about today. Read the whole article: https://www.theguardian.com/society/2019/may/10/blow-up-how-half-a-tonne-of-cocaine-transformed-the-life-of-an-island
When I asked Pedro, a local returnee, after having spent most of his life in Ontario, and who we met at a local tapas and wine bar, what the main export of the Azores was he confirmed what we already knew: Beef and dairy, pineapples, bananas and seafood. Basically, the common restaurant menu. Pineapple or Ananas was the one unusual commodity as we soon found out when we visited a pineapple production, just minutes from downtown. They grow them in white painted greenhouses by the thousands and make jam, liquor and juice besides exporting them, mostly to the rest of Europe. We learned all about the exotic fruit, how they are grown from rhizomes, induced to flower with smoke, one flower per plant, and at what stage they are best harvested for storage and consumption. I love pineapple and grew very fond of the juicy, sweet local fruit.
The climate on this island is balmy and doesn’t change much all year round. The locals say there are three kinds of weather. Sun, wind and rain. Often all in one day. We loved the fact that it was T-shirt weather in the afternoons with cool evenings, like late spring back home and this in January.
Being tourists, we were out and about every day, rain or shine. We walked through the two botanical gardens within minutes of downtown and uhed and ahed at the immense gum trees with their dragon roots, the bamboo groves, the gigantic Norfolk Pines and exotic trees from all over the world, planted her less than two hundred years ago. We indulged and immersed ourselves in several natural and developed hot-springs on São Miguel, evidence of the subvolcanic activity and a treat even on rainy days. They range from large pools in the Terra Nostra hotel garden to the Ponta de Ferrari hot-springs issuing directly into the ocean into natural pools amongst the reefs It’s apparently the only place in the world where hot springs mix with the ocean water. Up a windy road past the Lagoa de Fogo, another scenic lake at the bottom of a crater are the Termas das Caldeiras springs, 5 pools nestled in a jungle of large ferns palms and exotic flora.
We drove to Furnas, about an hour from Ponta Delgada, where the hot water springs bubble and boil to the surface evaporating in clouds of vapour. On the shores of Lagao de Furnas you can indulge yourself in Cozido das Furnas; an old tradition consisting of baskets or sacks of delicatessen such as pig ears, beef tongue, pork belly and blood sausage, mixed with vegetables, submerged in the geothermal vents or cooking holes and steamed to perfection. There is also a large, rust coloured hot pool – I called it golden pond – inside the tropical gardens of the Terra Nostra hotel. Very exotic. The iron oxide leaves your skin orange but washes off easily. Caldeiras das Furnas are the other naturally developed hot springs in this geothermal region.
The island is famous for its many scenic hikes, up and down the volcanic cliffs in Relva, above the broiling Atlantic, inland through jungle and across fields, around lakes and up, down and around the large craters dotting the island. There are maps and descriptions available and the trails are well marked. Once we found where they started – not always easy – they were easy to follow and offered spectacular vistas. One such trail was the Ruta de Água starting and ending in Remédios. The 7.5 km circular hike led us across cow pastures then through a tunnel into a jungle or rain forest just like Alice in Wonderland, then along gorges and over aqueducts with views of waterfalls coming right out of the volcanic cliffs, along narrow trails and back again over green pastures with views of Lagoa and Ponta Delgada in the distance.
We were told there are two subjects that will get the locals excited: soccer and their passion for the islands. When the local team Santa Clara defeated the Portuguese champions Sporting 3:2 here in Ponta Delgada on the day we arrived we had no idea why the streets were filled with celebrating crowds. A sight unseen at home in these Covid times. Here in every bar or pub and at all times there is a soccer match on the telly. 24 hours a day. The locals are very proud of their mid-Atlantic paradise and see themselves as Azorens, distinguished and a step above the mainlanders from Portugal.
Did I mention how clean everything is in this subtropical paradise? No litter anywhere and no garbage floating down the cobbled alleys. ‘Cleaner than Switzerland’, my sister said, which means something. Street cleaners and road crews are everywhere, even pruning the thousands of baby blue and pink hydrangeas lining the roads all over the island. And every few kilometres there is a roadside picnic area, complete with stone benches under permanent cone shaped roofs, postcard vistas and yes, squeaky clean public washrooms everywhere. ‘They even have paper,’ my sister pointed out triumphally, surprised at the level of sophistication and general hygiene.
Most Azoreans speak English and understand and accept that their language is not understood and spoken by foreigners. Unlike Spanish, Portuguese and in particular the local dialect, sounds more Arabic and Russian than a Latin-based language. I can say: abrigado which means thank you, bom dia in the mornings and salud when toasting with one of the myriads of fine and inexpensive Portuguese wines. That’s about the extent of my local linguistic ability. A bit of an embarrassment which really comes to the fore when listening to the passionate local Fado singers, telling their heart-break stories in this unique, soul-full Portuguese blues idiom, accompanied by their own distinct twelve string guitar, which is not a mandolin, as was pointed out to us.
‘We will be back,’ we keep promising ourselves.